Israel: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ฑ

Tuesday, May 07, 2019 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Days 32-38:  Jordan to Israel.  After our extreme security experience in Amman and what we had read (and experienced in our 1979 visit) regarding the infamous thoroughness of Israeli scrutiny of visitors, we approached passport control with dread after landing in Tel Aviv.  It turned out that our concerns were completely unfounded.  The affable Israeli immigration agent was friendly and joked with us about his time spent in Atlanta working for a moving company.  He stamped our immigration cards, returned our passports and sent us on our way.

Incredibly that's all there was to it.  We kept waiting for the other security shoe to drop, but we were unhindered as we went to pick up a rental car and drive away to begin our Israeli road trip.  On our previous visit forty years ago, we had moved around the country using public transportation—mostly a lot of intercity buses.  Since our comfort level with foreign travel has grown and the Israeli road system has been modernized in the intervening years, this time, we opted to drive ourselves.
Since Israel lacks the narrow country lanes common in Europe, we were able to rent a compact SUV.
On our 1979 visit, we hit all the tourist highlights:  Tel Aviv beaches, Masada's ancient fort, the Dead Sea swim, Safed's artist colony, Jerusalem's Old City, Galilee villages of Capernaum and Tiberias, and numerous sites sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Though it had been a while, we didn't expect these sites to have changed much, so they did not make the cut for our itinerary.  Instead, we decided to follow the path less traveled, affording us the opportunity to see some new places and avoid the tourist hordes.

Our original plan called for spending nine days in Israel, but we left two days early.  In our seven long days there, we encountered a range of experiences vastly different from our 1979 visit.

The Good

National Parks
In an area about the size of New Jersey, Israel has preserved more than 50 localities as national parks, from historic sites to settings of natural beauty.  Quite a few of these made their way onto our agenda.  In the far north, on he slopes of snow-capped Mount Hermon, we started with Nimrod Fortress National Park.  Built in the early 1200s to defend the road from Damascus to the Mediterranean, the fortress followed the topographical conditions of the area.
Its position along a cliff made Nimrod Fortress almost impregnable.
On a high hill south of the Sea of Galilee, Belvoir National Park protects another impressive ancient stronghold, this one constructed in the 12th century by the Knights Hospitallers (yes, the same order of Crusaders whose history we encountered in Cyprus and Malta).  The building stones and bedrock foundation of the fortress were basalt, an immensely strong volcanic rock, making it the perfect citadel for the final holdout of Crusaders in the area known as the Holy Land.
Belvoir basalt has stood the test of time.
Protected by a 65-ft wide dry moat, Belvoir fortress withstood an 18-month siege in which the opposing Arab army was able to undermine only one tower.  But the prolonged attack had done its job.  Isolated and without supplies, the defending knights surrendered in 1189, restoring Muslims to military power in the area.
Most scrolls were hidden in the cave at the lower left.
Having seen the Dead Sea Scrolls in a Jerusalem museum on our previous visit, this time we wanted to check out the spot where they were found, now protected in Qumrun National Park.  In 1952, a Bedouin shepherd discovered seven scrolls housed in jars in a cave north of the Dead Sea.  Archaeologists subsequently uncovered and reconstructed numerous other ancient manuscripts dating to the 4th century BC in various caves in the area.
Ruins at Avdat National Park
Like other areas we've visited on this trip into the past, the roots of history run deep in Israel.  Avdat National Park preserves the ruins of an ancient Nabatean settlement along the famous Incense Route. The same nation that built their opulent capital at Petra in Jordan constructed a series of way stations, fortresses and towers to offer protection to traders and their caravans on this lucrative trade route.  Avdat was station #62 on this route from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD.
A model on site shows the layout of the ancient city of Beersheba.
Like Avdat, Tel Beersheva National Park is located in the Negev Desert in southern Israel.  Artifacts found at the site indicate that it was occupied as early as 4000 BC.  The city was destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries, as layers of ruins attest.  This was the site of the biblical city of Beersheba.
Gravesite of David Ben Gurion and his wife Paula
Though not a national park, another site which we found fascinating was the former desert home of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, in the town of Sde Boker.  His gravesite is nearby at the university that bears his name.  Though an important national hero and revered statesman, Ben Gurion stated in his will that, after his death, he wanted his humble two-bedroom home open to the general public, preserved as it was when he lived there.  He stated further, "I ask that during [my] burial ceremony no eulogies will be read and no salvo fired over my grave."

Comparing Israel's size with Georgia
Compact Size
Thanks to its modest size—70 miles wide at its widest point by 200 miles long—Israel is easy to navigate efficiently.  In fact, there are few places that can't be visited in a day trip from Jerusalem in the center of the country.  Driving from the lush agricultural fields of the north to the dry and barren deserts in the south can be done in little more than an hour.  This made it easy to check out a plethora of the country's fascinating archaeological and natural sites in the week we spent there.

Excellent Infrastructure
Based on our experience with narrow, twisting European roads, often with little or no right of way and stone walls built at the edge of the roadway, we typically rent cars much smaller than our vehicles at home.  In Israel, however, roads are more like those found in the North America—modern design, wide lanes, and well maintained.  
Roadside light poles all sported zebra stripes near their bases, making them more noticeable.
Plumbing in Israel, we're happy to report, was also equivalent to Western standards.  Unlike some of the other countries we've visited on this trip (yes, you too, Greece), we saw no restroom signs indicating that toilet paper could not be flushed and should be dropped in the waste can provided.  Nor did we see any squat toilets.

The Bad

The Heat
Yes, we do realize that a large swath of the south of Israel is covered by desert.  And yes, we do remember the oven-baking experience of spending ten July days in Israel in '79.  But we were still caught by surprise when the temperature climbed to 100° on May 2.  With no shade in sight, of course.
The canyon at Makhtesh Ramon
Weekly Easter
We have written often of stumbling upon one Easter holiday after another when traveling, usually involving three to four days of store, museum, and other closures, leaving us a bit adrift in terms of finding meals and activities.

Though Israel is technically not a theocratic state, there is no question that its ultra-Orthodox minority wields disproportionate control over the secular majority, thanks to the vagaries of coalition building in a parliamentary government.  As a result, most restaurants, stores, and other businesses, as well as all public transportation, close a few hours before the beginning of the Jewish sabbath (sunset Friday) and remain closed several hours after the holy day ends at sunset on Saturday.  For visitors who don't know this ahead of time, life can be a bit challenging.
Most tour buses per capita in the world?  We wondered.
Excess Tourism
As a place dear to the hearts of adherents of three major Western religions, Israel attracts almost 4 million tourists annually.  At least a third of these come on large, organized tours, meaning they're moving about the country in packs on tour buses.  All these tourists also have helped to drive up prices at Israeli hotels.  In fact, prices in general tend to be higher in Israel.  We paid the highest price for gasoline on this trip in Israel, an average of $9.56 per gallon.

The Ugly

Security Threats
While we were staying in the south, rockets were launched at Israeli targets from the Gaza Strip, more than 600 over a two-day period.  The morning after the attacks began, we were advised by the owner of the vacation rental where we were staying to take an easterly route on our way north to Jerusalem, rather than driving through the area beset by attacks.  Until Israel and its neighbors are able to reach some accord, these types of incidents are always an imminent possibility.

Gratuitous Disrespect
What really grated the most when we visited Israel was the barrage of rudeness and disrespect we encountered.  We experienced it from hoteliers—repeatedly—, in public places, and especially on the road.  Queue jumping seems to be the national sport as Israelis have no regard for the rights of others who have stood in line before them.  When people blow off scheduled meeting times, they laugh off the fact that you have been waiting and shrug, "It's Israeli time."
Clearly not a place one should speed through
And for some reason, Israeli drivers tend to be aggressive to the point of bullying.  As we neared a police checkpoint with signage clearly indicating we should approach with caution, a truck driver behind us blasted his horn repeatedly to insist that the driver of what was a clearly marked rental car rush past the armed soldiers to save this trucker a few seconds.
Even bus drivers don't hesitate to tailgate.
In the end, the rudeness was like an abrasive sandpaper that wore us down to the point we decided to depart early.  Are we so sensitive that we had our feelings hurt?  No, but the lack of common courtesy and disregard of personal space did get tiresome.  And at the bottom line, we decided we'd rather spend our money somewhere we were treated with respect and didn't have to battle for fair treatment.

When we went Israel in 1979, people were friendly and seemed to appreciate our visiting. Availability of English speakers was fairly widespread, and people would try to help us whether they spoke our language or not.  Forty years later, our experience was quite different. Back then, when we were standing on a street corner looking at a map, locals would stop and ask if we needed help.  Today if we stopped on a sidewalk to consult a map, we'd probably be shoved out of the way.  And now we're told that visitors are being rude if they approach a local and waste his or her time asking for assistance.

Israel, you need not worry.  We certainly won't bother you again.

Chapter 8 Stats
    •  Started in:  Amman, Jordan
    •  Ended in:  Jerusalem, Israel
    •  Air Miles:  70
    •  Road Miles: 888
    •  Foot Miles:  38.56
    •  Weather:  63° to 100°, sunny, hazy, partly cloudy
    •  Beware of Camels roadside signs:  137
    •  Camels:  1,145
    •  Tour buses:  1,794
    •  Stores open on Friday afternoon/Saturday:  5%
    •  Bugs hitting windshield:  37,902
    •  Courteous drivers:  1%

Loved:  That there were plenty of interesting sites to visit away from the tourist hot spots.

Speed limit signs.  Rarely was the speed limit posted, so we were left to just guess.

Learned:  Even though much of our trip has focused on history thousands of years old, we learned that a lot can change in just 40 years.
Airing pillows and linens in the the old town of Acre 
Acre's busy old town market
Haifa's beautiful Ba'hai Gardens
We've seen lots of hooded crows on this trip.  Their call is identical to the ones more familiar in North America. 
Camel riding opportunity at a rest area.  (Note the graphic stop sign.)
Modern tools for date farming
Ein Avdat National Park, a spring in the Negev Desert 
Had a great visit with Ken's college roommate, Jeff, and his wife Diane in Jerusalem.
The perfect metaphor:  an unstaffed Information desk at the main Jerusalem train station.

Best Clock of the Trip
At the Ben Gurion Airport, we saw the coolest digital/video clock ever, sponsored by a local car rental company.  It takes up an entire wall.  Check it out here